Have you ever felt these ways?
- “I don’t want to leave my marriage, but I want my husband to stop losing his temper.”
- “I love my husband, but I wish he would stop working so much and spend more time with our family.”
- “My marriage isn’t terrible, but I feel like everything we do is on his terms. He doesn’t listen to me.”
- “He has no clue how hard I work or how much I do for our family while he’s out pursuing his goals and dreams.”
I get so many questions from women who are trying to speak up for themselves in their marriages. Typically, I’ll hear something like this: “I’ve tried setting boundaries, but it does not work! I can’t get him to change.” They feel ignored, unsupported, or invisible.
The first thing you have to understand is that you will never get someone else to change. That’s not what it means to set a boundary. That being said, what you can do is learn to cast a realistic vision for what you would like to strive for as a couple. You can make wise choices to help move toward the healthier marriage you crave.
When It’s Good Enough to Stay
If you’ve been reading along with me for a while, you have heard me talk about the idea of the “good enough” parent. This is a term that psychologists use to describe a healthy parenting goal. You won’t be perfect. But, there is such a thing as “good enough” when it comes to parenting.
According to renowned marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, the same is true for marriage. No marriage will be perfect. And, no marriage will be without its fair share of problems. However, there is such a thing as a “good enough marriage.” He describes it this way:
In a good enough relationship, people have high expectations for how they’re treated. They expect to be treated with kindness, love, affection, and respect. They do not tolerate emotional or physical abuse. They expect their partner to be loyal. . . They are good friends. They have a satisfying sex life. They trust one another, and are fully committed to one another. They can manage conflict constructively. That means they can arrive at mutual understanding and get to compromises that work. And they can repair effectively when they hurt one another.
—From The Truth About Expectations in Relationships, by Dr. John Gottman
Gottman goes on to say that there are several things we can’t expect out of marriage. Specifically, we can’t expect marriages to be free of conflict. Marriages won’t single-handedly heal all childhood wounds—we have to do much of that work on our own. And, most couples will face some problems they simply won’t be able to solve.
There is no “perfect” marriage. It does not exist. Some marriages are really healthy. And, some marriages are toxic.* But, the reality is that many marriages lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. They’re not bad enough to leave, but they are not quite “good enough” yet. Typically, it’s this middle category that has us wanting to figure out, “How can I get him to change?!”
Steps to Take
While you can’t change your spouse, there are steps you can take to help move the needle toward greater health. Here are a few things to try. You might want to read through these items together with your spouse.
1. Be direct about your “bids”.
After studying marriages for decades, Gottman discovered that healthy couples learn to respond to each other’s “bids” for connection. A “bid” is any indirect request for kindness, acknowledgement, or simple connection. In his work, he found that the couples who learned to respond to each other’s bids showed much higher levels of satisfaction than those who didn’t. A bid might be any of the following:
- “Wow! Look at how beautiful the moon is tonight.”
- “I’m so tired after working all day.”
- “I’m nervous about the meeting at school tomorrow.”
Imagine you’re sitting in the kitchen after dinner. He’s working on his computer. You say any one of these things, and he simply does not look up. Or, maybe he grunts. How would you feel?
Now imagine your husband looks up from his computer and responds in any of these ways:
- “You are right. That is so beautiful. Thank you for bringing my attention to it!”
- “I’m sorry you’re tired. Is there anything I can do?”
- “I didn’t know there was a meeting at school. Do you want to talk about it?”
Do you see the difference? With just a simple acknowledgement of your “bid,” you are going to feel more connected to your spouse. The same is true when you respond to his bids for connection.
If your spouse isn’t great at noticing your bids, tell him what you are doing. Bring the language of “bids” into your vocabulary. You might say, “Honey, I’m making a bid right now! I need some attention!” It might even help to read this article together and talk about the different ways you each make small “bids” for connection each day.
2. Identify clear goals that you would like to work toward together.
In marriage, it’s helpful to start with a proactive request vs. a complaint or critique. For example, if you’re bothered by your husband watching television or working too much, you might say something like the following:
- “I would love to do something active with you tonight. Would you be willing to take a walk with me?”
- “I know it’s a busy work week for you. Could we make time to plan a date night this weekend?”
If your husband balks at this request then you might need to state the goal you envision more directly. For example:
- “I want to spend time with you in the evening. But, it doesn’t work for me to make TV our regular activity. Could we talk about doing something more active together 1 or 2 nights a week?”
3. Set a boundary in order to care for yourself.
If your spouse simply isn’t willing to connect with you when you bid; or if he’s unwilling to negotiate with you to make a proactive change in your marriage, then it’s time to set a boundary.
Remember: setting a boundary is not punitive. It is not something you do to control, change, or manipulate someone else’s behavior. For example, it’s not:
“If you don’t turn the TV off, then I’m done speaking with you tonight.”
Instead, setting a boundary is something you do to protect your own mental and emotional health. It’s a two-fold process. You
a.) stop engaging a behavior that is unhealthy for you; and
b.) choose a better option to care for yourself.
For example, you might say (or do) something like the following:
“It seems like you want to watch TV every night, and that’s not something that is healthy for me. I’m going to start taking walks with my friend Kelly after dinner. I’ll need you to keep an eye on the kids while I’m out.”
Do you see the difference?
Your spouse may not like this decision that you have made, but it’s not really up to him to decide. You’re not punishing him. You’re simply taking charge of yourself.
So, if you’re struggling with the question, “How do I get my spouse to change?” consider rephrasing the question this way:
How can I use my voice to clarify what I want and need in this situation?
If they don’t respond to what you want and need, then get creative about getting those needs met in other ways.
“Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”—Proverbs 4:6-7
For Further Reading:
“5 Steps to Reclaim Your Voice in Relationships” —part of my Claim Your Yes relationship bundle.
Healthy Boundaries in Marriage and How to Tell the Difference
The Benefits of Self-Awareness: A Tool Every Couple Needs
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Which step listed above do you find most helpful?
*If your spouse is abusing you mentally, physically, or emotionally, that’s toxic. If he’s consistently lying to you, stealing from you, or cheating on you, that’s toxic. If he’s denying his addiction or abuse and systematically manipulating you in order to make you feel crazy (gaslighting), that’s toxic. If this is your situation, traditional “boundary-setting” won’t work. You will need to take action to protect yourself. Please check my Resources page for ideas on how to get support.
Daniel Holden says